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Third Millennium Syria

The introduction of Mesopotamian culture into Syria coincided with the development of the cuneiform writing system, during the late fourth millennium and first half of the third millennium BC. During the next few hundred years, this writing system was adopted by the populations outside of Mesopotamia that were interacting regularly with Sumer and Babylonia primarily through trade. As the cuneiform system developed and spread, it was adapted to express non-Sumerian words, including personal names. In general, Akkadian and other languages adapted the cuneiform script by means of the same rebus principle used by Sumerian cuneiform to express grammatical affixes (Cooper 1996, 45).

The earliest examples of Semitic written in cuneiform come from Fara, and Abu Salabikh, located in the southern part of northern Babylonia, during this period (Biggs 1967). Late Early Dynastic texts from sites in Syria such as Mari, Tell Beydar, and Ebla also yield Semitic personal names and lexemes. The cuneiform writing system continued to be used and adapted to write many different Semitic dialects throughout the script’s history, yet cuneiform texts written in Semitic have been classified more often than not simply as Akkadian (although not infrequently as “peripheral Akkadian”), even though there is evidence that such a simplistic characterization is not appropriate.

This misinterpretation of the evidence is understandable, however: Semitic writing in Syria utilized a writing system that was invented in Babylonia, so it is logical that the orthographic tendencies of the Semitic language of Babylonia became the standard for writing all Semitic cuneiform (Cooper 1999, 69). There is even some evidence to suggest that there were periodic reformations in the cuneiform writing traditions of Syria to make it conform with the Babylonian standard: this evidence comes particularly from Mari, where the writing conventions of the Šakkanaku period were abruptly replaced with the Babylonian conventions (Durand 1985, 160ff.; 1992, 121ff.; cf. Cooper 1999, 69). This provides us with some interesting insights: since cuneiform was being adapted to write Semitic in Babylonia and in Syria simultaneously, the Babylonian writing system had to be sufficiently developed before the standards and reforms could be imposed (locally or further afield). Even if Babylonia were not initiating official reforms it is clear that they exercised varying degrees of influence over the Syrian city-states, depending on city and time period.

Therefore the adaptation and use of cuneiform into Syria provides an interesting case study for examining the how people interacted with logosyllabic and syllabic writing systems.

The preliminary evidence suggests that in the third millennium, particularly at sites further away from the control of the Mesopotamian core cities, scribes had more freedom to adapt cuneiform as they needed to. Based on the Sumerian we find in these same texts, we know that the scribes at each site were rigorously trained in how to read and write Sumerian cuneiform. However, there are clear deviations in the Akkadian syllabaries of Syria from normative Mesopotamian cuneiform, and also inconsistencies in the sign values and number of signs used syllabically across each of the sites investigated. This suggests, while there must have been a more prescriptive educational approach to learning the cuneiform signs themselves and their Sumerian values, that during this time period a prescribed method of writing and adapting cuneiform to write Akkadian was not included in the scribal curriculum.

This lead to different adaptations of the cuneiform script and to slight variations in the number, type, and value of syllabic signs used in the individual syllabaries from sites in Syria.



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